“Amazingly,we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure and uninterrupted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free-swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we came.”
I read The Snow Leopard and I read it again. I had heard it was a transcendent book, a ‘must read’ both for the seeker in the world and the seeker of the inner world, and it’s all true. Yet it’s more complex than that. On the one hand, Matthiessen’s journey is one focused on the mundane, the difficulties of daily life – eating, moving, sleeping, being cold and wet, being tired, being cross, being impatient. On the other hand it is a journey to inner discovery, an exploration of someone seeking something beyond themselves. In the physical world Matthiessen is seeking both the Crystal Mountain monastery, a fabled buddhist temple in a remote area of Tibet and the fabled, elusive snow leopard. In the spiritual world he is seeking a resolution, a deeper kind of buddhist experience and a reconciliation with the death of his wife – Deborah Love – a woman with which he had a tumultuous relationship. He left behind his children to go on this journey. Perhaps it was worth it.
“But when I came across these cautionary words, I already had what Kierkegaard called “the sickness of infinitude”, wandering from one path to another with no real recognition that I was embarked upon a search and scarcely a clue as to what I might be after. I only knew that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow place that needed to be filled.”
The book is split into four sections each representing a period of travel: Westward, Northward, The Crystal Mountain, The Way Home. His travelling companion is George Schaller a naturalist who is seeking insight into the bharal – the Himalayan blue sheep. Schaller may be familiar to those who have read Gorillas in the Mist as the man who influenced Dian Fossey to deepen the research into the mountain gorilla, amongst other accomplishments. Along with Schaller there are a troupe of various porters and scherpers, some of which stay for the whole journey and others which fall away. One in particular, Tukten, has a profound impact on Matthiessen. He feels a connection he cannot explain, though Tukten is believed to be unreliable.
The book takes the form of a diary which includes details of the journey as well as Matthiessen’s reflections on his buddhist experience as well as his late wife. It is a strange blend: part expedition diary, part naturalist diary and part spiritual journey, with some of the history of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, woven into the blend. It makes a compelling tapestry, perhaps less so for those disinclined towards any religious exploration, but even taking this element out the book remains compelling. What ensues is something greater than the journey alone. Whilst the principle hunt, on Matthiessen’s part, is for the leopard, this element fades into the background as he discovers the greatness of what is already there in front of him: the treacherous and magnificent landscape, the strangeness of the goats, the hunting behaviour of wolves, the delicate yet resilient wildflowers, the resilience of the people that live in this difficult landscape, the darkness of night, the wonder of a lone voice singing. There is a strong parallel between the life of a naturalist and the inner life of a committed buddhist which centres around the importance of observation, the attention raised on the here and now, not inserting the ego but simply watching, seeing what actually happens rather than imposing the human will. It brought to mind the wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the way Dillard observed and allowed herself to be absorbed into the landscape. Matthiessen struggles here to do the same thing. He is more revealing of his challenges – the moments of anger that he submits to, the difficulties of interrelationship and how this impedes his progress towards the inner peace, the negation of self, that he so desires.
“The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home. (“But you are home,” cries the Witch of the North. All you have to do is wake up!”) The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas”, of fears and defences, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhism calls our own “true nature”; each man is his own saviour after all.”
The Snow Leopard is one of those books I have had extreme difficulty expressing my thoughts about. It has made me think a great deal and I think I could read it over and over and each time absorb something a little different. There’s an echo, a reflection perhaps, of my own experience though I am not embarking on an epic journey in which I will suffer privations and difficulties, in my interior life I sense similarities between where Matthiessen found himself and where I now reside. I have, I have had for a long time, that restless feeling. I encountered that same sense of recognition that Matthiessen makes reference to when I first read the Tao te Ching and I have been seeking something ever since. I have considered embarking on a spirit quest, odd as that sounds, which involves a period of isolation and fasting and in which everything that sustains and contains us is stripped away, revealing only whatever is left. Matthiessen’s journey expresses that experience in a very visceral way with all the difficulties and the errors, the everydayness of emotions piqued by lack of oxygen or hunger. What I realised as I read this extraordinary book is that there’s no need to go anywhere to explore these feelings, we can do it here and now. Because, for all of these experiences:
“The ground whirls with its own energy, not in an alarming way but in a slow spiral, and at these altitudes, in this vast space and silence, that energy pours through me, joining my body with the sun until small silver breaths of cold, clear air, no longer mine, are lost in the mineral breathing of the mountain. A white down feature, sun-filled, dances before me on the wind: alighting nowhere, it balances on a shining thorn, goes spinning on. Between this white feather, sheep dung, light, and the fleeting aggregate of atoms that is “I”, there is no particle of difference. There is a mountain opposite, but this “I” is opposite nothing, opposed to nothing.”
Eventually we have to return to daily life and daily life will intrude wherever we are, unless we take ourselves away forever, live off-grid, outside society for all time:
“The part of me that is bothered by the unopened letters in my rucksack, that longs to see my children, to drink wine, make love, be clean and comfortable again – this part is already facing south, over the mountains. This makes me sad, and so I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all of these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.”
So: does Matthiessen find the snow leopard? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself. And if you do I hope you found, as I did, that the experience was worth it whatever the outcome; because that, I think, is the core message that Matthiessen is trying to convey, the truth his Buddhism leads him to, that it is the experience of the journey that counts; the outcome, for us all, is always the same.